The Integrity of 2 Corinthians

From Anabaptistwiki

ADB logo letters.jpg Home A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Abbreviations Glossary


One long­standing puzzle about 2 Corinthians concerns how the various parts of the letter hold together. Are the different parts integrated as though written at one sitting by one writer in the same frame of mind from start to finish? No one seriously questions who wrote the different parts of 2 Corinthians. The historical Paul did, in the midst of his north­-Mediterranean mission at about A.D. 54­-55. The way the parts of 2 Corinthians fit together, however, is quite a different matter. This is the puzzle of integrity. Reading through 2 Corinthians in one sitting, an attentive reader will experience abrupt breaks in the form of writing and flow of thought at several points in the text. This phenomenon has led to a wide range of scholarly opinion about the origin of the parts and their place in the present letter.

At one end of the spectrum, a few scholars feel compelled to treat the letter in its present form as a unity. Paul wrote all of 2 Corinthians on one scroll at one period for the same situation, abrupt changes of mood and language notwithstanding. At the opposite end, more than a few scholars see in 2 Corinthians a composite of no less than five fragments of letters, some large and some small, written at different times about different situations at Corinth. The combining of the fragments happened after Paul's mission and death at approximately the same time as the collection of Paul's letters from the different churches around the Mediterranean. A second-­generation Christian (or group) devoted to Paul and his work must have gathered together all available writings of the great apostle. Some of the material from Corinth would have been fragmentary, either from wear and tear or from the deliberate cutting of one piece of papyrus from the scroll. The collected fragments of different letters, if they came from one area, Corinth, were then transferred to one scroll to make a composite letter.

The practice of combining written (or oral) materials from an important community leader started long before the second­-generation church. Many documents of the Hebrew Bible are composite works, the prophets being a prime example. The large scroll of Isaiah, for example, contains speeches from different years and different situations of the prophetic ministry. The combining of the different prophetic oracles and narratives then served the larger (and later) community of Israel. A similar process happened for Paul's combined letters or parts of letters in 2 Corinthians. A generation after Paul's death, this composite document identified with Paul's ministry at Corinth was put into the service of the church at large.

Whatever the position concerning the number of letter fragments in 2 Corinthians, some account should be given for the unexpected interruptions of thought and literary texture at several points in 2 Corinthians. The disjuncture from one section of text to the next is sharper at some points than at others, as the following analysis indicates.

From 2:13 to 2:14

At 2:12­-13 Paul begins a personal account of his traveling from Troas to Macedonia to find Titus. Suddenly the thought changes into a triumphant thanksgiving that leads Paul into another train of thought lasting until 7:4. At that point the travelogue about Macedonia resumes and concludes in 7:5­-16. This juxtaposition of texts has led some readers to the opinion that the conciliatory text of 1:1—2:13 and 7:5­-16 once stood together in the same letter, and that 2:14—7:4 (minus 6:14—7:1) belonged to another letter in the form of a defense for Paul's mission and ministry.

From 6:13 to 6:14; and 7:1 to 7:2

At 6:11 and 13 Paul cites his openness and compassion toward the Corinthians and asks that their hearts also be open to him: open wide your hearts also (6:13). Abruptly at 6:14 the text becomes a stern, sermon­like warning for believers to avoid an unequal yoke with unbelievers. A striking number of the words in this small passage (6:14—7:1) appear only here in the NT and are not characteristically Pauline. Much of the thought compares well to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran. At 7:2 the conciliatory language returns as suddenly as it left: Make room in your hearts for us. A number of interpreters view 6:14—7:1 as a Pauline fragment of a lost letter, inserted between 6:13 and 7:2 by a later editor. Others believe the passage was written by someone other than Paul and inserted at this point by the later compiler of Paul's correspondence.

From chapter 8 to chapter 9

Both chapters 8 and 9 deal with the collection of money for the saints at Jerusalem. The appeal of chapter 8 reaches an apt conclusion at the end of the chapter. Chapter 9 begins another appeal for the collection as though chapter 8 did not exist prior to it. This observation has led some scholars to interpret the two chapters about the collection as two separate letters. Some suggest that chapter 9 is an earlier appeal than the letter of chapter 8.

From chapters 1­-9 to chapters 10­-13

Of the noticeable interruptions in language and thought throughout chapters 1­-9, none compares to the radical change of tone at the beginning of chapter 10. In chapters 1­-9 the tone generally is conciliatory, even though Paul appears to be aware of visiting preachers at Corinth who commend themselves unduly in distinction from him (3:1­3). In marked contrast, the language of chapters 10­-13 is sarcastically biting. In these four chapters, Paul attacks the rival missionaries who have made themselves welcome at Corinth. He goes on to chastise the Corinthians for allowing these preachers to present themselves at Corinth in opposition to him. Hence, most scholars read chapters 10­-13 as a letter written at a different time and situation from the time and circumstance of chapters 1­-9. Some place the last four chapters chronologically before chapters 1­9, and identify chapters 10­-13 as part of the so­-called "severe letter" or "letter of tears" referred to in 2:4 and 7:8. Many other interpreters consider chapters 10­-13 to be a letter in response to a later development of opposition to Paul in Corinth.

The position adopted

Rather than enter a detailed discussion of the various composition theories of 2 Corinthians, a short explanation of the position adopted in this commentary must suffice.

With the exception of the alien character of the warning inserted between 6:13 and 7:2, and assuming that Paul digresses from one line of thought to pursue another related idea, the unity of chapters 1­9 can be affirmed. The same cannot be said for all thirteen chapters. The thirteen chapters comprising 2 Corinthians have two distinct literary parts: chapters 1­-9 and chapters 10­-13. These two literary types brought together onto the one scroll of 2 Corinthians represent two letters of Paul, or parts of letters, written out of two different sets of circumstances. The sequence is the same. The letter of chapters 1­-9 predates the letter of chapters 10­-13. The latter does not qualify for the earlier "letter of tears" alluded to in 2:1­4.

Even though there is no evidence in the available manuscripts for two original letters, the literary evidence points strongly in the direction of two originals. Paul ends the collection appeal of chapter 9 thankful to God for his indescribable gift (9:15). Then immediately in chapter 10, he lashes out at opponents in Corinth, and at the Corinthian believers themselves. He uses sustained invective, the like of which is completely missing from chapters 1­-9. Someone may say that Paul composed the two parts at two intervals, or that he had "a sleepless night" between the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of 10 (Lietzmann). But that is hardly enough to account for Paul's placing the two very different ways of writing to his congregation on the same scroll to be read at Corinth at one sitting.

It is difficult to imagine Paul mailing one scroll with one part gentle and conciliatory and the other censuring and defensive; one part saying, I often boast about you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation; I am overjoyed (7:4), and the other saying, I fear that when I come, I may not find you as I wish. . . . Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith (12:20; 13:5). In the letter of chapters 1­-9, Paul has no reason "to boast" about himself in ministry. In chapters 10­-13 the Corinthians have forced him "to boast" at length. The word boast is prominent in chapters 10­-13, and the first person singular (I) is frequent. These terms signal a new situation of opposition and estrangement that has prompted the kind of writing found in these last four chapters of 2 Corinthians.

The relational sequence of chapters 1­-9 to 10­-13 needs further comment. Chapters 10­-13 are severe and sarcastic, but not tearful or sorrowful any more than 1 Corinthians is. Neither the letter of 1 Corinthians nor the letter of the last four chapters of 2 Corinthians qualifies for the letter Paul describes in 2:3­-4 and again in 7:8. The letter Paul cites in these texts refers to his second visit, when someone opposed him shamefully. Paul denounced the man for his outburst against him. The congregation apparently stood apart apathetically. Paul left the congregation dishonored, lacking moral support from his converts, and sorrowful at such a heavy loss of honor. Out of sorrow, he wrote a letter chiding the congregation for their strategic withdrawal from him when he needed their support, and calling on them to discipline the individual involved. The congregation felt hurt by Paul's letter, but they followed his directive in any case. according to the report that Titus brought back to Paul (7:5­-13). Upon learning of their obedience, Paul wrote the conciliatory letter now preserved in 2 Corinthians 1­-9, urging the church to show compassion to the man who had wronged him (2:8­-9). While the conciliatory letter survived in 2 Corinthians 1­-9, the "tearful letter" did not survive.

The substance and rhetoric of 2 Corinthians 10­-13 make it an unlikely candidate for the tearful letter on several counts. Those four chapters make no mention of the offender or of the offense, and they give no advice to the congregation on how to deal with the man. Instead, these chapters represent quite another situation in which intruding missionaries have led members of the congregation to question Paul's credentials for apostolic ministry. With such a charge against him, Paul writes the Letter of Defense (chaps. 10­-13) and plans a third visit to deal with the charge face to face (12:14; 13:1).

One can only assume that Paul and the Corinthian believers ultimately resolved their differences. If he later wrote Romans from Corinth, as most believe he did, then indeed Paul and the Corinthians were united. He would have lived in Corinth for some time, and he probably accepted food and lodging from the Corinthians, particularly the Corinthian women responsible for such provision (Wire: 39­-97). The epistle to the Romans from Corinth carries virtually no hint of the earlier conflict with the Corinthians. By the end of Romans, Paul can report that the collection from Achaia, the area of Corinth, is already complete (Rom. 15:25­-26). Furthermore, the Letter of Defense survived, is preserved in chapters 10­-13 (of 2 Cor.). and thus is testimony in itself that the letter and third visit accomplished their aim: the conflict was resolved, relations restored, and the letter preserved as a memento.

The thorny question on the place of the warning of 6:14—7:1 in chapters 1­-9 is more difficult to decide. As for the literary unity of 2 Corinthians 1­-9, this small warning passage does not fit well into the context of chapters 6­-7. Its presence in that context "looks like an erratic boulder" (Plummer: xxiv).

From the number of "foreign words," coupled with rather un­-Pauline ideas and forms, one could reasonably assume that this fragment had currency at Corinth and came into the hands of the collector of Paul's letters and letter fragments. The collector then incorporated the warning into the scroll of 2 Corinthians between 6:13 and 7:2. The language and ideas of the fragment have much in common with some texts in the Qumran scrolls. But warnings of this sort were common in the synagogues of Greek­speaking Jewish people in Mediterranean culture, not strictly in the Qumran community. The fragment has some of the marks of a synagogue sermon; it may well have made its way into the Corinthian Christian context, where it was picked up and incorporated into the larger scroll of the biblical 2 Corinthians.

The fragment contains a significant number of un­-Pauline elements and fits marginally in the rhetorical context of 2 Corinthians 6­-7; yet its insertion in that unlikely place gives it canonical status in the tradition of the Corinthian correspondence of Paul, whether Paul wrote it or not. This justifies its interpretation and application in the commentary.

V. George Shillington